Psychology, Self-Development, Videos

How to Stop Being a Coward

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The following is a transcript of this video.

In our age of anxiety and victimhood, courage is a trait that many of us sorely lack. For who among us could not create a long list of things we would do if only we were more courageous? How often have we disappointed ourselves by succumbing to our fears rather than taking actions that could create a better life? But for those of us in such a position our future need not mirror our past as courage is a skill that can be cultivated and above all else this skill emerges from the way we relate to our emotions. To act with courage requires that we stop looking at distressing emotions as barriers to action and instead learn to proceed into life even in the presence of fear, anxiety, guilt or shame. In this video we are going to explore some tools and techniques that can help us form this type of relationship to emotional side of the world within.

To begin we need to outline the role that emotions play in a human life and we need to distinguish between adaptive and maladaptive emotions. For within this frame of understanding it will become clear why the typical ways people relate to distressing emotions promotes cowardice and why an alternative is needed.

“Emotions serve critical roles in directing our attention, shaping our perceptions, organizing our memory, and motivating our active engagement with the learning that life relentlessly requires of us.”

Michael Mahoney, Constructive Psychotherapy

There has been a persistent trend in the history of ideas, stretching all the way back to Plato, that characterizes emotions as the unruly and animalistic elements of a human life. Our emotions, according to this perspective, disrupt our tranquility and impede our ability to think rationally. But this view is one-sided and overlooks the prospective role of emotions. For our emotions, when functioning properly, help us adapt to our environment; they provide information as to the good and bad of our life, and they direct our attention at a speed that often surpasses that of our cognitive mind. While all emotions can provide us with information, it is often the most distressing emotions that are packed with the most important information. Fear can focus us to a threat, anxiety can alert us to the fact that we are taking a wrong path in life, while guilt and shame can signal that our behaviour is not in line with our moral compass. Or as Leslie Greenberg explains in Emotion-Focused Therapy:

“The normal function of emotion is to rapidly process complex situational information, in order to provide feedback to the person about his/her reaction and to prepare the person to take effective action.”

Leslie Greenberg, Emotion-Focused Therapy

Our emotions, in other words, are crucial not just in our ability to survive, but to flourish. But where most of us struggle is in our inability to deal with what are called maladaptive emotions. For sometimes our emotions can take on a life of their own and instead of signalling adaptive ways to interact with our environment they deceive us and impel us to behave in ways that will diminish our well-being. These maladaptive emotions, as Greenberg explains:

“. . .no longer help the person cope constructively with the situations that elicit them; rather, they interfere with effective functioning. These emotion responses generally involve overlearned responses, on the basis of previous, often traumatic, experiences.”

Leslie Greenberg, Emotion-Focused Therapy

Maladaptive emotions are the little devils that throw our life off course. They are the emotions that give rise to phobias, anxiety disorders, anger problems, depression, and to distorted levels of guilt and shame. Most people try to cope with such distressing emotions in one of two ways: through reasoning or through suppression. Both methods, however, are antithetical to the cultivation of courage as they treat distressing emotions as states that must be overcome before action can be taken and the possibilities of life explored. But what makes matters worse is that both approaches tend to fail in achieving their intended purpose of freeing us from the grip of the maladaptive emotion.

Reasoning with our emotions is often resorted to when we are cognizant of the fact that our maladaptive emotions are not in line with the reality of our situation. At such moments it can seem reasonable to try and argue with our emotions in the hope that our cognitive mind can exert control over them and free us to move forward unimpeded by their presence. But emotions are rarely controllable by sheer acts of will, nor amenable to the power of thought alone. In fact an intense emotion is more likely to override our ability to think clearly, than a clear thought is to override an intense emotion, or as Alexander Pope famously put it:

“The ruling passion, be it what it will, the ruling passion conquers reason still.”

Alexander Pope

As our thoughts alone will rarely free us from an anxiety disorder, a phobia, or other forms of maladaptive emotions many people give up on this approach and instead turn to emotional suppression for relief. If we cannot defeat these emotional states with our thoughts, perhaps we can force them out of conscious awareness. Suppression can work at times, but at a price to pay, for as the psychologist Alexander Lowen explains in his book Fear of Life:

“. . .suppressing a feeling doesn’t make it go away; it only pushes it deeper into the unconscious. By this action we internalize the problem.”

Alexander Lowen, Fear of Life

Internalizing our emotional states merely displaces their effects. Instead of feeling angry we may develop chronic muscular tension or migraines. Instead of feeling anxiety we may develop bodily symptoms such as digestion problems or an inability to sleep. But a further problem with suppression is that it creates a new barrier to courageous action. We may no longer feel the emotion but the psychosomatic ailment we created in the process will often become our new excuse for remaining stagnant. Instead of telling ourselves that we must overcome our fear or anxiety before we take bold actions, we now we tell ourselves that we must heal what ails the body.

But if reasoning with maladaptive emotions proves ineffective, and if suppression only distorts the problem, what is the alternative? How can we relate to distressing emotions in a way that promotes the cultivation of courage? One tool that can assist us in this regard is emotional labelling. Emotional labelling entails noticing the presence of an emotion, and instead of arguing against it or trying to supress it, we accept it, and internally label it. We say to ourselves: “I am feeling anxious”, “I am experiencing fear” or “I am feeling angry”. This may seem like a trivial act, but as Greenberg explains:

“A growing body of research has revealed that labelling an emotion (i.e., putting one’s feelings into words) helps to regulate affect downwards. Thus, when one sees an angry face and attaches to it the word angry, there is a decreased response in the amygdala. The benefits of affect labelling thus go beyond whatever actual insights are gained by knowing what one feels, because the act of labelling itself actually decreases arousal.”

Leslie Greenberg, Emotion-Focused Therapy

After labelling our emotion we will be in a better position to evaluate what, if anything, the emotion is signalling us to do. If the emotion is adaptive and pointing us in a clear direction then we will have little reason to disobey what it tells us, but matters are not so straightforward for maladaptive emotions. For unlike an adaptive emotion, a maladaptive emotion is best coped with not by doing what the emotion seems to be telling us – which is usually some form of avoidance – but by doing the opposite. We need to expand our life in the face of maladaptive emotions as constricting our life only reifies the phantom threats that give rise to these distressing states. And herein lies a great opportunity for those of us afflicted by maladaptive emotions – their presence creates an ideal situation for the cultivation of courage. For courage, at its essence, is the ability to take action even when storms of doubt rage within, and so the more our life is afflicted by maladaptive emotions, the more opportunities we have to practice acting in this manner.

To take advantage of our maladaptive emotions we should create a list of small actionable steps that gradually expose us to the situations we fear. Each step should take us progressively further out of our comfort zone but if we can commit to taking at least one step each day we will have turned our maladaptive emotions from inhibitors of our well-being to promoters of a stronger self. When a distressing emotion is triggered through this exercise we merely need to label it, accept it, and then move forward regardless of how uncomfortable we feel. If we are consistent in our practice we will likely notice that our maladaptive emotions arise with diminished frequency. But even if they continue to be part of our life this exercise will teach us that distressing emotions need not be chains that limit us and that action can be taken even in their presence. We will have learned, in other words, the art of acting with courage.

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.”

Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson

But to become a true master of our fears and one of the rare few who can honestly say that courage is a trait that defines us we must be willing to occasionally experiment with taking bold steps, not just small ones – as sometimes it is a leap that life requires. To give our self the best chance of becoming capable of such feats we may find it helpful to add to our arsenal some tools and techniques that harness the power of the body-mind connection and this will be the topic of our next video. For the way we hold our body, the way we move it through the world and the way we fuel it greatly influences what we feel capable of achieving. Our body, in other words, is so intimately connected to the state of our mind that mastery of the world within must pay homage to the somatic side of our existence, for as Carl Jung wrote:

“The enigmatic oneness of the living organism, has as its corollary the fact that bodily traits are not merely physical, nor mental traits merely psychic. The continuity of nature knows nothing of those antithetical distinctions which the human intellect is forced to set up as aids to understanding.”

Carl Jung, Psychological Types

Further Readings

Art Used in this Video

Prometheus by Gustave Moreau
Carolus-Duran - Portrait of a Man - 59.26 - Indianapolis Museum of Art
Jan Cossiers - Prometheus Carrying Fire
Soul in Bondage by Elihu Vedder, 1891-1892, oil on canvas - Brooklyn Museum - DSC09636
Морской пейзаж Айвазовский
Zelfportret met pijp - s0158V1962 - Van Gogh Museum
Schuler, The Chariot of Death, detail
Фрегат под парусом айвазовского
Adolphe Schreyer - Man with Lance Riding through the Snow - 1894.1067 - Art Institute of Chicago
Bergh Richard Nordic Summer Evening
Three grotesque old men with awful teeth grimacing and point Wellcome V0012066
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn - Jeremia treurend over de verwoesting van Jeruzalem - Google Art Project
Gustave Courbet - Le Désespéré
Cartier Fear illo Unknown July 1940
Francisco Goya - Simpleton - plate 4 from the series 'Los Disparates' (The Follies) - Google Art Project
Ch. Boirau, "The Spleen" ("Melancholy")
Vincent van Gogh - Worn Out (F997)
Adriaen Brouwer - A Boor Asleep
Laurits Andersen Ring - The sick man - Google Art Project
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes - Monk Talking to an Old Woman - Google Art Project
Peter Paul Rubens - Prometheus, 1636
Artur Grottger, Portret własny
Jealousy by Edvard Munch - Städel - Frankfurt am Main - Germany 2017
Almeida Júnior - Monge Capuchinho
Leopold Munsch - Group of mountain climbers beside
Anton Mauve - Het moeras
Johan Edvard Bergh - Solnedgång över fjärden (1855)
Knight's Encounter LACMA M.76.167.19
Edward Mitchell Bannister - Sunset - 1983.95.108 - Smithsonian American Art Museum
Van Gogh - Bildnis des Kunsthändlers Alexander Reid
Cornelis van Dalem (Attributed to) - A Knight, Death, and the Devil
Hércules y el Cancerbero, por Zurbarán
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe by Karl Bauer, c. 1920
Antonio Allegri da Correggio, his life, his friends, and his time (1896) (14581668330)